The protagonist of Richard Powers’s 2014 novel, “Orfeo,” is a composer named Peter Els who, late in life, begins to dabble in biotechnology. Els’s attempts to “compose” in DNA turn him into a suspected bioterrorist fleeing across the country; one of his furtive stops is Champaign, Illinois, where he attended graduate school. In a coffee shop that he remembers from his student days, Els recognizes Steve Reich’s 1995 “Proverb” coming from the speakers. In the bravura passage that follows, Powers describes the way that Els listens to the music:
Another modulation, and the ghosts disperse. He wants the piece to be over. Not because of the thrilling sameness: monotony could almost save him now. Because of the waves of connection lighting up long-dark regions in his head. He knows better, but can’t help it: these spinning, condensed ecstasies, this cascade of echoes, these abstract patterns without significance, this seamless breathing leaves him sure, one more time, of some lush design waiting for him.
In the long tradition of novels about music and musicians, this language is new….